Snow Birds, Students and Black Swans
I’ve been in Florida for the past 6 weeks, staying at a place on the Atlantic Coast, just north of West Palm Beach. Even though I am not working right now, I’m still what my husband calls a ‘disaster junky’ – although Claire Rubin would call me one of her ‘disaster divas’.
Being a California earthquake girl, I’ve been looking at Florida hurricanes and how their mass evacuations work. From what I can tell, Florida has an awesome system in place to support emergency management at a local level, encourage cooperation and coordination among the counties and a flexible infrastructure – like their toll roads built for counter flow traffic during an evacuation.
During the past week or so, I’ve witnessed an interesting phenomenon that I’ve heard about but never experienced: the arrival of the Florida Snow Birds.
This is not a trivial event for emergency management. One study out of the University of Florida estimated there were 700,000 snowbirds in Florida at the peak of the 2004-2005 season, which was something like a 4% increase in the overall population for that year.
I wondered how an emergency management program handles the sudden, dramatic increase of a transient population of special needs (or verging on special needs from what I’ve observed) people, who are not local and stay for an extended period of time.
This is not special event planning. It’s not ‘commuter’ planning.
I talked to Mike Faulkner who is currently with FEMA Region IV, but before that he was the Emergency Manager in Okeechobee County, a small, rural county in the middle of the state, with a permanent population of about 40,000. When the Snow Birds arrive, the population swells by about 15,000. That is a 37% increase.
Mike says the county can’t get additional funding for snowbirds, because they aren’t permanent residents, so they mitigate the effects with some of our standard emergency management tools.
One is to do as much advertising as possible during the Snow Bird season to encourage the use of the special needs registry that each county is required to maintain. Another is to build on the spirit of cooperation among emergency managers in Florida by developing specific mutual aid agreements with areas that might not be as badly effected. “If I had to send special needs patients to Orlando,” Mike says, “I’d send a couple of our public health nurses to help.”
Another is developing community resources to help out during an emergency. Mike talked about one community of French Canadians who had their own CERT team. After they took care of their own, he could dispatch them to other locations in the county.
All emergency managers have their own “unconventional” populations to deal with, don’t they? When I was working on campus, it was the freshman students. They were 18 or 19 years old, away from home for the first time, followed closely by ‘helicopter parents’. We did a lot of advising that first year, worked closely with Student Affairs, and tried to stay clear of their bicycles (most of them hadn’t ridden a bike since middle school).
Mike said the one good thing about the Florida Snow Bird incursion is that it is a known and marked season – and opposite of the hurricane season. The worse case scenario would be a Cat 5 hurricane in January, which is very unlikely.
Black swans, anyone?
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